Oxford

Borough

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Elections

DateCandidate
1386Edmund Kenyan
 Thomas Houkyn
1388 (Feb.)John Hickes
 Thomas Somerset
1388 (Sept.)John Shawe I
 Thomas Baret
1390 (Jan.)Richard Garston
 Alan Lekensfeld
1390 (Nov.)Edmund Kenyan
 Adam de la River
1391Edmund Kenyan
 John Ottworth
1393Richard Garston
 John Merston
1394Edmund Kenyan
 John Forster
1395John Ludlow
 Adam de la River
1397 (Jan.)Walter Benham
 Adam de la River
1397 (Sept.)John Ottworth
 Adam de la River
1399John Spicer I
 John Burbrigge
1401Thomas Forsthull
 Adam de la River
1402Walter Benham
 John Spicer I
1404 (Jan.)Thomas Coventre I
 John Spicer I
1404 (Oct.)John Merston
 Michael Salisbury
1406John Ottworth
 Thomas Cowley
1407Thomas Coventre I
 Hugh Benet
1410Thomas Coventre I
 Hugh Benet
1411
1413 (Feb.)
1413 (May)Thomas Coventre I
 Hugh Benet
1414 (Apr.)John Shawe II
 Walter Colet
1414 (Nov.)Thomas Coventre I
 John Merston
1415
1416 (Mar.)Thomas Coventre I
 William Brampton II 1
1416 (Oct.)
1417Thomas Coventre I
 Hugh Benet
1419Thomas Coventre I
 William Brampton II
1420Thomas Coventre I
 William Offord
1421 (May)Thomas Coventre I
 William Brampton II
1421 (Dec.)John Quarame
 William Offord

Main Article

In the last quarter of the 14th century Oxford was easily the biggest and most important town in the middle Thames valley and of the surrounding counties, with a lay population twice the size of that of Reading or Newbury, and rather larger than that of Gloucester. Besides making use of links afforded by the waterway, it also developed as a major route centre for overland traffic, having good communications with London, Bristol, Southampton, Leicester, Worcester and, very easy of access, the Cotswold wool towns. Moreover, Oxford was the seat of a large and growing university which, though its presence was a continual thorn in the side of the local authorities, provided an important outlet for consumer goods manufactured in the town. It is not surprising therefore, that in 1380 rather more than a quarter of the tax-paying population were involved in the victualling trades, while a slightly smaller proportion was concerned with clothing, many of these being tailors. Indeed, the change in Oxford’s economic base from manufacturing and commerce to service trades dependent on the university was already well advanced.2

At this time, however, Oxford was in the midst of a period of gradual decline, which had begun in the 13th century and continued for 300 years. In 1334, for example, tax returns show that Oxford ranked eighth among English boroughs, while by 1377 it was 15th in importance, and by the early 16th century it had dropped to 28th place. The rentals of such local landholders as Osney abbey and St. John’s hospital show that the number of occupied dwellings was decreasing by the middle of the 14th century, while in 1370 a royal command required empty tenements in the High Street not to be pulled down, ‘in deformitatem et destructionem ville predicte’. College records also show that unoccupied houses in the town were numerous and cheap. Other documents, such as borough rentals and fragmentary survivals relating to guild entries and funds, might seem to show that Oxford’s decline had temporarily levelled out by the turn of the 14th century. Nevertheless, in 1440 the Oxfordshire knights of the shire successfully petitioned for a reduction in the town’s assessment for parliamentary tenths, on the ground that the inhabitants were ‘insupportably burdened’, and ten years later a petition describes the place as ‘now for the more part desolate’.3

Founded shortly after 900 as a planned ‘burgh’ (though on the site of earlier settlements), Oxford was of great political importance in the early 11th century as a border fortress between Wessex and Mercia. It is likely that the town’s privilege (shared only with London and Winchester) of sending its burgesses to assist at coronation feasts, grew up in Anglo-Saxon times, and probable that a merchant guild came into existence before the Norman Conquest. A second period of importance occurred in the 12th century, when Oxford was often the resort of kings and the meeting place of great councils, and further benefited from the proximity of the royal palace of Woodstock, the foundation of St. Frideswide’s priory, Osney abbey and other religious houses, and the beginnings of the university. The oldest surviving Oxford charter, dated 1155, comes from that period, but granted nothing new, rather confirming privileges already established. By then the merchant guild exerted control over all buying and selling within the town, and its members had the right to trade anywhere in England without paying tolls or other levies. By the end of the century the burgesses, or members of the guild (for the two were identical) had gained further liberties: in 1199 they bought the right to farm Oxford independently at a payment of just over £63 p.a. They were thus freed from the interference of the sheriff of Oxfordshire, and had the right to the profits of markets and of certain mills, as well as to the issues of their own local courts.4

Entry to the guild was open to the sons of burgesses, as well as to those who had served a seven-year apprenticeship, or by payment of a fine. About half the adult laymen of the town, numbering 400 to 500 in the 15th century and including nearly all those of any wealth or consequence, were burgesses, although freedom of the borough might also be conferred on non-residents from as far afield as Worcestershire. All members contributed to the £92 which Oxford paid when a parliamentary tenth was collected. The guild, and thus the borough, was ruled by a mayor, who was elected by the burgesses. The system, however, was oligarchic rather than democratic, for the choice was limited to one of two men put forward by the retiring mayor and his council. It is perhaps a measure of Oxford’s importance that the incoming mayor was required, on election, to appear before the King and take an oath of loyalty. Mayors were supported by four aldermen, probably elected for life (although the ritual of annual selection continued), and also by eight ‘assistants’, who together made up the mayoral council. Under them were two bailiffs, generally fairly young men, whose duties were many, including keeping law and order, inspecting the markets, and collecting and delivering the fee farm. The guild’s finances were controlled by two chamberlains. All these officers were elected every year at Michaelmas, and formed a hierarchy, in the sense that a burgess had to have served as a chamberlain before he could be made bailiff, and a bailiff and alderman before becoming eligible for the mayoralty. Two local courts were held each week: the hustings court, presided over by the bailiffs, on Mondays, and the mayor’s court, which sat on Fridays. The first seems to have dealt with general offences against the peace, while the second covered breaches of guild discipline.5

In the period 1386-1421 the corporation of Oxford was almost continuously involved in disputes with other institutions, mainly over the burgesses’ rights and privileges, and MPs were frequently used to forward the borough’s case in Parliament or in the lawcourts. For example, in the 1390s the perennial question as to whether the burgesses should be made to pay tolls in London arose again, for even though in 1393 the mayor, Thomas Somerset, travelled to the City to exhibit the borough’s charter confirming freedom from such levies, the Londoners persisted in collecting them. Accordingly, Oxford’s representatives to the Parliament of January 1397, Adam de la River and Walter Benham, were ordered, while up at Westminster, to procure a royal writ in the burgesses’ favour, and this was formally presented at the London Guildhall by the Members of the following Parliament, de la River and John Ottworth. A more serious dispute, if only because taking place nearer home, was that with the important Augustinian abbey of Osney, situated just outside the town boundaries. In 1376 the borough authorities had claimed that the villages of North and South Osney were a suburb of Oxford, and thus subject to their jurisdiction, but the bishop of Lincoln had ruled to the contrary, deciding that the manorial rights over Osney pertained to the abbot. Matters did not reach a head again until a fresh quarrel broke out in 1415, on the burgesses’ refusal to accept the presence of the abbot’s attorney in their hustings court, and by 1417 both sides had resorted to violence. When one of the town’s tax collectors attempted to distrain on the abbot for a contribution to a parliamentary tenth, he was stabbed by a servant of the latter in the church of St. Mary Magdalen, and so far did relations deteriorate that the townspeople felt it necessary to repair the portcullis on the north gate ‘ad resistendum malicie adversarii nostri abbatis Oseney’. Nor was the corporation innocent of offence: the abbot claimed that over the years since 1403 a number of townsmen (including several of our Members) had systematically encroached on his land at Osney and usurped his jurisdiction there. In petitioning for a royal commission of inquiry to be set up, he further accused Thomas Coventre I, Walter Colet and John Ottworth of being involved in breaking down his weirs, stealing his horses and goods, and assaulting, threatening and imprisoning his tenants. The case was finally settled in 1419, after much expenditure on presents to judges, the sheriff, and the chancellor: it was then agreed that the abbot would give up his manorial rights in all parishes outside the gates of Oxford, and in return should be spared from contributing to royal taxes for the property he held within the borough.6 Several minor confrontations took place between the townsmen and occupants of various of the colleges and halls of the university. One of the most serious happened in the 1380s, with the consequence that Merton college and a number of burgesses (including Richard Garston and John Hickes) were required to enter into reciprocal bonds, each in the sum of £2,000, all those involved undertaking to keep the peace in future. This particular conflict arose over a right of way, but a more usual cause of dissension was the halls’ failure to contribute towards parliamentary tenths and fifteenths levied on the town. This prompted a petition to be sent to the Parliament of 1410, probably delivered by Thomas Coventre I and Hugh Benet, which pointed out that although scholars and their tenants occupied the greater part of the town, they refused to contribute to its taxes, ‘a tres graund arrerisment du ditz Mair et Communaute et a final destruction du dit ville’. The government ordered that the clerks should pay.

This last debate underlines one of the chief difficulties experienced by the borough officials in this period, for although they ostensibly ruled the whole town, they were in fact forced to share control with the university authorities, headed by the chancellor, who sometimes commanded powerful support from Church and State. The university clerks formed a parallel community, which was bound to clash with that of the townsmen, frequently to the latter’s disadvantage—as in the case of the riot on St. Scolastica’s Day 1355, for which the burgesses were blamed and forced to make large reparations, which continued to be exacted until the very end of the medieval period. Again, during the early years of the 15th century, a dispute broke out concerning the jurisdiction of the chancellor’s court as it applied to townsmen. This court, which dealt with the day-to-day affairs of members of the university, had become popular with creditors generally, since its procedure in actions for debt was comparatively rapid and effective. Burgesses would, therefore, ‘cede’ their actions to a member of the university, so that by a legal fiction such suits could be dealt with by the chancellor. As the profits of the town courts were being thereby reduced, this naturally became a source of considerable grievance to the municipal hierarchy, to the point that when, in 1405, John Ottworth was sued before the chancellor for debt in a ‘ceded’ action, he not only refused to pay, but appealed to the court of King’s bench, which agreed that all actions for debt between laymen should be tried at common law, and ruled that ‘cessions’ were illegal. It is perhaps significant that Ottworth was elected as an MP in 1406, just when he was prosecuting his case at Westminster, and that his fellow Member was Thomas Cowley, the King’s attorney in the same royal court, then sitting in the Commons for the first and indeed the only time.7 A far more serious dispute occurred during the years 1428-32, when the chancellor attempted to usurp what remained of the corporation’s jurisdiction over the markets, and to prevent its collection of stallage. Both parties sought the benefit of influence in high places, the borough with Cardinal Beaufort, the university with the duke of Bedford, the earl of Warwick, and a number of bishops. The matter was only brought to a satisfactory conclusion after considerable expenditure, the town’s eventual victory being largely the work of Thomas Coventre I, who was MP as well as mayor for a greater part of the crisis, with the help of William Brampton II.8 Despite the university’s attempts to encroach on the borough’s rights and privileges, there is no evidence whatever that it, or any other local institution, succeeded in exerting influence over the elections of Members of Parliament. Thomas Houkyn, it is true, was at one time in the pay of Oseney abbey, but when he entered the Lower House in 1386 it was while serving as a town bailiff.

Oxford had sent representatives to the Parliament of 1295, and continued to do so thereafter without interruption. Elections were held on receipt of a precept addressed to the bailiffs by the sheriff of Oxfordshire, to whom they notified the outcome. Towards the end of our period this return sometimes took the form of an indenture, usually attested by 12 burgesses, including the mayor, the two bailiffs, at least two of the aldermen, and the town clerk. It was stated that the choice of Members had been made with ‘the assent of the whole community’ or by its ‘unanimous consent and assent’. This would seem to indicate that all the burgesses participated, as happened at elections of borough officials; but whether they were free to select whom they would, or were restricted in their choice to specific candidates put forward by the mayor and his council, is not clear. Certainly, in most cases they elected individuals who had already occupied borough offices. Elections took place at the guildhall, and were not timed to coincide with those for the county: sometimes happening earlier, sometimes later, it was only in 1425 that shire and borough hustings occurred on the same day.

The names of Oxford’s Members are known for 28 of the 32 Parliaments of this period, but there is no information as to who sat in 1411, 1413 (Feb.), 1415 and 1416 (Oct.). Altogether they numbered 26, of whom half (13) were probably elected only once. However, John Hickes sat in five Parliaments (four of these before 1386); Adam de la River served on the same number of occasions between 1390 and 1401, including the three successive Parliaments of 1395, 1397 (Jan.), and 1397 (Sept.); and Edmund Kenyan represented the borough in at least nine of the 19 Parliaments which met between 1379 and 1394, doing so three times on the run in 1380 (Nov.), 1381 and 1382 (May), and again consecutively in 1385 and 1386, and in 1390 (Nov.) and 1391. By far the most experienced Member was Thomas Coventre I, who is known to have sat in no fewer than 16 Parliaments all told between 1404 and 1435. He was certainly elected (within our period) to the successive Parliaments of 1407 and 1410 and to every one for which returns survive between 1414 (Nov.) and 1421 (May); and later on he sat consecutively in 1422 and 1423 and 1427, 1429 and 1431. With such a comparatively large number of experienced MPs, it is not surprising that, during our period, both Members were hardly ever newcomers to the House: indeed, this only occurred twice, in 1388 (Sept.) and 1399. In a majority of 17 instances a novice accompanied an experienced man: but on nine occasions both MPs had been returned previously. Re-election (meaning election to successive Parliaments) was by no means a rare occurrence, as the records of Coventre, Kenyan and de la River show. It happened ten times in this period, and in 1410 both Members of the preceding Parliament were chosen again. The tendency, especially in Henry V’s reign, was for Oxford to be represented by a comparatively small number of tried individualds, mostly of fairly high standing in the borough.

The parliamentary representation of Oxford does not appear to have usually run in families, although Walter Benham may have been related to John Benham (1368) and John Shawe I was almost certainly the father of John II. Nor were all the MPs natives of the town or even permanent residents there. De la River was born in Ireland, Colet first lived at Wallingford, and Brampton came from Burford, where he always spent some of his time, particularly towards the end of his life. It is also likely that Michael Salisbury was for a time resident in Gloucestershire, Hugh Benet at Thame (Oxfordshire) and Thomas Cowley in London. However, with the single exception of Cowley, all the parliamentary burgesses of the period held office in the borough. Because of the rules of the guild, all must have begun as chamberlains, but only Benet appears not to have risen higher. Thus, 24 of the MPs served as bailiff, many of them more than once; ten rose to be aldermen; and, of these, eight became mayors. Garston occupied the mayoralty for 11 years in all, Brampton eight, Coventre five, Kenyan four, Merston three, Offord two, and John Shawe I and Thomas Somerset one. Seven Members are also known to have been appointed coroners for the borough. First election to Parliament generally occurred only after service as a bailiff (this was so in 22 out of 24 cases), and before promotion as an alderman. It rarely happened that a bailiff or the mayor would be spared from his duties to attend the Commons—the only instances being in 1386, when one of the bailiffs (Houkyn) was returned, and in 1419 and 1421 (May) when the mayor (Coventre and Brampton, respectively) was elected—although on at least ten occasions the borough was represented by an alderman.

Most of Oxford’s Members were fairly prosperous tradesmen. Eleven were victuallers, as one might expect in a town where the university considerably augmented the number of consumers. Six more were connected with the cloth trade (including Brampton, the wealthy Burford woolman), and one, John Forster, was a shoemaker. Of the remainder, Thomas Houkyn, for many years coroner of the hundred of Northgate, may well have been a professional administrator, while Thomas Coventre I, John Ottworth and Thomas Cowley were all described as ‘gentlemen’. The last of these, a lawyer by training, held a permanent post at Westminster as crown attorney in the King’s bench. It would appear that Hugh Benet was also a man of law, albeit one of lesser standing.

No fewer than 14 MPs were appointed to royal commissions concerned with the affairs of the town, for the most part as collectors of subsidies, and the majority (eight) had served on such bodies before their earliest elections to Parliament. Eight were named on the borough’s commission of the peace, all but one being appointed only after sitting in the Commons. No more than six were ever placed on commissions dealing with county matters, and of these Thomas Cowley was exceptional as being made a member of the Oxfordshire bench. Apart from Cowley, just three occupied crown offices: John Merston as alnager in Oxford, Thomas Houkyn as a coroner in Oxfordshire, and Michael Salisbury as a coroner in Gloucestershire, but in all three cases tenure of office never coincided with election to Parliament.

Six parliamentary burgesses are known to have owned property outside the town: Hugh Benet at Thame, Thomas Cowley at Iffley and Cowley, William Brampton in his native Burford, John Shawe II at Hungerford in Berkshire, Michael Salisbury in Gloucestershire, and Thomas Coventre I in Southampton. Apart from the last named, who acted as a trustee and executor for Sir Peter Bessels*, Thomas Cowley was the only one to establish close links with members of the county gentry. His connexions with such prominent figures as John Wilcotes* and John Cottesmore, the future judge, when taken together with his office in the King’s bench, provide an explanation for his election to Parliament in 1406 at the time of the borough’s involvement in the legal dispute over ‘cession of actions’.

Author: Charles Kightly

Notes

  • 1. The return (C219/11/8) is damaged, only the name of William Brampton being now legible. That of his companion is supplied from W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1083.
  • 2. W.C. Hoskins, Local Hist. 176-7; Oxf. Hist. Soc. xviii. 1-50; VCH Oxon. iv. 45-46.
  • 3. VCH Oxon. iv. 15-16, 18-19;